Middlesbrough 1 Crystal Palace 1
Middlesbrough 1 Crystal Palace 1 IF Middlesbrough's players were as imaginative in the penalty area as they are at coming up with ways of delivering quirky responses to routine questions for the match-day programme, they would be sitting pretty in a play-off place right now. Instead, while Kyle Naughton was said to enjoy wearing women's clothes' after one of his team-mates decided to tinker with a question and answer sheet for the club magazine, Boro remain on the Championship treadmill. Despite plenty of running, they are going nowhere fast and it is painstakingly obvious why. Manager Gordon Strachan knows it, his backroom staff know it and the players don't try to hide it either. Even the supporters, with numbers expected to drop further without the promise of a top-flight return next season, can see it. For all Strachan has tried to inject some creativity in to Middlesbrough's play since he took over in October, the reality is that he has failed in the aftermath of losing Adam Johnson to Manchester City on February 1. And it is the absence of a match-winning spark, from the wings or through the middle, that has proved costly to Middlesbrough. With a sixpoint gap to claw back to the top six in the final month of the season, the Championship beckons again. Boro looked on the verge of recording a victory that would have revived play-off hopes, ahead of today's long trip to Plymouth, when Scott McDonald scored inside a quarter of an hour. But once Crystal Palace found an equaliser, against the run of play, just before half-time through Alassane N'Diaye, Boro's problems were highlighted further. Only Jonathan Franks, a young winger with an abundance of talent, regularly crossed the ball in to the area, but on the whole such deliveries were not met by a Middlesbrough player in the box. Time ticked down and a draw was not the outcome the Teessiders needed. It's a disappointing result, said Strachan. I can't ask for any more in terms of determination and what they're trying to do but in the last 25 yards our quality and imagination is not where we'd like it to be. We got in to dangerous areas more times than any time since I've been here but our quality wasn't great and I feel sorry for the players because they worked hard and put so much in. They must feel the football gods are against them, but they've also got to say when they get in there they've got to put in the final ball or finish the chance. Undoubtedly Strachan has added a new resilience to Middlesbrough, with Stephen Mc- Manus at the heart of the defence the epitome of the character running through the squad. Despite the acquisitions of Barry Robson and McDonald in January, however, the Boro boss accepts he still needs an inventive mind, perhaps in the mould of Blackpool's Charlie Adam. Only Swansea City and Bristol City have recorded more draws than Middlesbrough's 13 this season and that is a reflection of the way Strachan's team plays. If you look at this league there are an awful lot of draws. If you can find that quality, which teams at the top have, then you've got a better chance of winning games, he said. The game doesn't change. It's all about passing and using your imagination. We're just hanging in there for the play-offs. But we've not deserved to be in the top six because we've had too many draws and we've not done enough in terms of stopping goals going in. It's just that bit of quality and imagination that's needed. The goal which Middlesbrough did score was contested by their opponents. A terrific pass down the line from Justin Hoyte created space for Gary O'Neil to run on to. And McDonald, who had started the move in an offside position, turned and charged into the penalty area on cue to slide in and convert O'Neil's centre beyond Palace goalkeeper Julian Speroni. Paul Hart, the Eagles boss, claimed afterwards the goal should never have stood, while Strachan offered a different opinion. He said: The law says if he's not interfering he's fine. While I don't agree with it, it's not the first time it's happened. Gary's timed his run right and Scott's used his intelligence by getting out of the way. After N'Diaye was left in too much space to nod Alan Lee's cross inside Brad Jones' left post to level matters, Middlesbrough took control for the remainder of the match. They just failed to find the elusive winner. In truth they rarely threatened Speroni's goal with the Argentinean keeper only forced into saves from a Robson drive from distance and a McDonald strike after a clever back heel from substitute Leroy Lita. On the balance of play Middlesbrough deserved more, but that counts for little when a top six place is slipping away. Match factsM Goals: 1-0: McDonald (15, slid in to meet O'Neil's centre after doubts about offside); 1-1: N'Diaye (45, arrived in the box to nod Lee's delivery inside Jones' left corner) Bookings: Davis (61, foul); Lee (71, dissent); Speroni (87, unsporting behaviour) Referee: Graham Salisbury (Preston) - question marks about offside for opening goal but, as Strachan says, rules are rules 6 Attendance: 18,028 Entertainment: MIDDLESBROUGH (4-4-2): 5 Jones: A quiet afternoon and was unable to get anywhere near N'Diaye's equaliser; 7 Hoyte: Enjoyed an adventurous second half and played the through pass for opening goal. 6 Wheater: Recovered from an early error to perform solidly in the Boro box. 7 McManus: Solid and commanding at the heart of the defence, again. 7 Taylor: Had looked lively down the left until injury forced him off; 6 Robson: Was effective and almost scored, but his game is more suited to central role 6 O'Neil: His burst down the right and delivery led to McDonald's opener. 7 WILLIAMS: Went off through injury after a powerful display in the middle. 7 Franks: By far Boro's most creative player, but was let down by his final ball; 5 Killen: One header into the hands of Speroni was all he could muster 6 McDonald: Still looked short of his best but still managed his second for the club. Subs: Naughton (for Taylor 42): Performed well at left-back after his introduction 6 Lita (for Killen 58): Failed to test Speroni but had an impact 5 O'Shea (for Williams 78) (not used): Coyne (gk), Miller, Arca, Grounds. CRYSTAL PALACE (4-4-1-1): SPERONI 7; Ertl 5, McCarthy 7, Davis 6, Lawrence 6; Ambrose 5, Derry 5, Danns 5, Carle 6 (Scannell 72); N'Diaye 6; Lee 6 (Andrew 78). Subs: Manns, John, Comley, Zaha, Holland. MAN OF THE MATCH RHYS Williams his driving runs from the midfield often turned defence into attack for Boro.
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